A Polish sociologist comes to study our riches and finds our poverty

November 25, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

LESLAW Werpachowski came to the United States to study philanthropy. But the poverty he finds here still surprises him.

"Poles don't think of America as a place of poverty," says Werpachowski, a Solidarity official and newspaper editor from a small city near the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia.

"Every Pole who comes to the States, as a so-called 'tourist,' comes back a relatively wealthy man," Werpachowski says.

Nobody takes back stories of the homeless, the unemployed, or the hungry.

"It's very surprising to me," Werpachowski says, "that they are in poverty instead of wealthy."

Werpachowski is what is called a philanthropy fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies. He'll be here for nine months. He's one of five international fellows at the institute for the fall semester, two philanthropy and three urban fellows.

The institute is a think tank that examines public problems, especially in cities, and tries to develop solutions to them. Around since the '60s, the institute has "built a unique worldwide network of urban scholars, planners and policy-makers."

Werpachowski will become one of them. He's a graduate in sociology from Jagielonski University in Cracow -- "the oldest and most famous university in Poland," he says, "founded in 1364."

He's married. His wife's name is Iwona and they have a son, Matthieu, 13, and a daughter, Agatha, 1. They live in Ustorn, where they moved, Werpachowski explains, "because that's where his wife got an apartment."

He was the sociologist at a foundry that employed 1,500 people making auto parts, "very hard manual labor," he says, "smoky, noisy." He did research on how people behave at work: "Why they don't want to work there."

He joined Solidarity, Poland's anti-Communist union, in 1980. After the imposition of martial law in 1981, people in his factory were being arrested.

"I started to help them out," he says. He was deputy chairman of Solidarity at his factory.

He was arrested in his turn and did seven months in prison.

"You know," he says, "it was a very interesting experience. I understood quite well we were hostages in Jaruzelski's hands, to forestall demonstrations and keep order."

General Wojciech Jaruzelski was premier and first secretary of the Communist Party until its fall in 1988.

After leaving prison and feeling his way about a bit, Werpachowski resumed his involvement with Solidarity.

"I started to work with them after the parliamentary election of '89, when Solidarity people won," he says. "We decided to organize the Civic Committee, which was going to prepare for local self-government elections."

He eventually became chairman of the local Civic Committee in Ustorn, which is a town of about 15,000. He became interested in sort of free enterprise fund-raising for school lunches and similar charities.

He organized "actions" to ask directly for donations at the entrance to cemeteries on All Saints Day, rather like the Salvation Army at Christmas. They picked up old clothes and resold them at a little shop, in the style of Goodwill Industries.

In Poland, depending on your politics, poverty was either abolished by the system or caused by the system. And the system became a kind of crutch for some people. They could blame their poverty on "the system."

Werpachowski wants to learn how the United States fights poverty.

"I'd like to identify the range of poverty and the methods of coping with the problem," he says.

"What are the results of these methods?" he asks. "What are the reasons for plunging down the social ladder and diving into poverty?"

He's been working at SS. Philip and James Church, south of the Homewood campus at 27th Street, with Chet Jakowski, a deacon and president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the parish.

"We started visiting people who are in need," Werpachowski says, "and we give them food which is bought with church funds."

"We try to talk to them," he says. "I try to understand their needs. How did it happen they find themselves in a situation which requires help of the church?"

For his research project, he's looking at "the non-profit sector of a small American city" -- Cumberland, Md. He expects to compare Cumberland with Ustorn, but he wants his research to apply to other Polish cities.

His biggest surprise up till now did not come from the poverty he's seen.

"The first thing that [strikes] every foreign visitor," he says, "is the issue of unsafe streets in Baltimore and other American cities and the danger almost everywhere. And police sirens, which can be heard everywhere almost all night. The big cities are not peaceful."

"I couldn't imagine something like that is present in the United States," he says. "The city is divided into 'good' parts and 'bad' areas. Americans say this is a 'bad' area. . . .

"And you know how the city is divided by unseen borders. Some people don't want to think about these things because they live in a different part of the very same city."

"It's very strange," he says. "Their city doesn't belong to them in full. They would like to erase some things from reality. Close their eyes and plug their ears.

"So this is surprising," Leslaw Werpachowski says. "I wouldn't like to see similar problems in Poland."

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